Sun, 05/28/2017 - 7:00am
Melissa Merli, The News-Gazette
CHAMPAIGN — In an unusual move, Krannert Art Museum has brought a back-of-the-house issue to full-frontal display with "Provenance: A Forensic History of Art."
With six paintings and examples of books used in research, the small exhibition in the Kincaid Pavilion covers the big issue of the lineage of ownership, or provenance, of European paintings in the museum collection.
Little known outside the art world, provenance has been in the media spotlight in recent years, mainly on researchers tracking down lost or stolen art during the Nazi period of 1933-45.
Nancy Karrels, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Illinois with experience in provenance research, guest-curated the exhibit. She had worked in that area at six museums before coming here.
Wanting to keep up that aspect of her career, Karrels approached Krannert Art Museum, asking whether she could research the provenance of 27 European paintings in the museum collection.
Because of gaps in their provenance, Krannert had voluntarily listed the paintings on the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, a project of the American Alliance of Museums. The portal provides a searchable registry of art objects in U.S. museum collections that changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era.
Karrels was able to document the Nazi-era ownership of four of the 27 Krannert paintings, leaving the museum listing 23 on the portal.
That doesn't mean those were stolen by Nazis; rather, it indicates there are gaps in the documented history of the ownership of the works during the Nazi era, said Maureen Warren, Krannert's curator of European and American art.
Two of the paintings that were removed from the portal are in the exhibition, on view through June 2018. They are "Christ after the Flagellation," painted circa 1670 by the Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and a painting of St. Ursula by the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend, who was active in late 15th-century Flanders.
"The Murillo that's in the show was fascinating because not only was I able to trace the provenance to before, during and after World War II," Karrels said, "but I also found a 100-year-old photograph of it hanging in a parlor in Ireland. So I had textual and visual evidence."
Provenance research is often compared to detective or forensics work. Like it, the research can lead to dead ends.
"Most of the time, the research is inconclusive," said Karrels, who has two law degrees from McGill University. "Even after months or years of research, you can have an unfinished, inconclusive provenance of where the painting was between 1933 and 1945. Some might take weeks or months to research."
It's difficult to trace the provenance of artworks, particularly in Europe, because over the century, through a number of wars, records were destroyed or moved.
"Sometimes people might have records in their attics that they're not aware of, from their grandparents," Karrels said.
Moreover, an artwork's title, attribution and even size may change, rendering it even more difficult to trace, reads the museum's introductory text to the exhibition.
"Finally, privacy laws in certain regions prevent dealers and auction houses from sharing information about consignors and buyers. Consequently, many provenance records remain incomplete, even after decades of research," the museum said.
Warren said a provenance researcher never knows when they might find a crucial bit of evidence. She said provenance research requires detail-oriented, not-easily-discouraged people, like Karrels.
Karrels is so good at it that she was the only student selected to join nine other U.S. and 10 German provenance researchers in a German-American provenance-research exchange program sponsored by German government agencies. The program consists of two weeklong workshops; the first was earlier this year in New York and the second will be this fall in Berlin.
The exchange allows Karrels to uses the specialized resources of museums, libraries and archives in New York and Berlin.
"This is an incredible opportunity to exchange knowledge with my German colleagues in a format that has never been done before and to break new ground in cooperation efforts," she said. "The problem is international in scope, and the best way to address it is to pool experience and resources across national boundaries."
In her own research toward her Ph.D., Karrels is researching artworks looted by Napoleon's army in the late 18th and early 19th century, around the time of the French Revolution. At the UI, she is an "Illinois Fellow," having received an Illinois Distinguished Fellowship, awarded to just a handful of grad students.
"It's a very generous fellowship that allows me to focus on my research rather than work as a teaching or research assistant," she said.
Karrels, who wouldn't mind being a full-time provenance researcher, finds the research intriguing, saying it's not just about the history of looting. It's also about the history of the ownership of objects.
"Who owned it, for how long, how was it acquired, where did it go when the owners passed," Karrels said. "Those are stories about people and we all enjoy stories about people. I think it's something museum visitors can connect with."
And, the detective work done by researchers like Karrels takes them to interesting places. "I'm corresponding with Swiss custom authorities to determine when one painting entered and left Switzerland during the 20th century," she said.
Karrels believes provenance research and even exhibitions about it might become more common as more is learned; she called the Krannert exhibition groundbreaking in its openness on the subject.
"I think a lot of museums are worried about what provenance researchers might find in their collections and might reveal through their exhibitions," she said. "It's wonderful that museums like Krannert have found we have more to win than lose."